Writing Games, Part Zero (A Preamble)

This is the prelude to the first of five blog post about writing in video games. I’ve always found video game development to be one of the most interesting things in entertainment, as nothing compares to its complexity. While I am certainly no expert in programming or visual design, I do know quite a bit about writing. On top of this, I’m generally well informed about the industry. It’s always fascinating to see a team of several hundred people spend several years (if not more) creating a work of art that is subject to intense scrutiny every step of the way. So many components have to be created, arranged, and then rearranged under high-pressure deadlines. It’s amazing anything actually gets out of the door!

Making movies is hard. There are crazy actors (Tom Cruise), pedophile directors (James Gunn), and corporations that are always shifting (Disney buying something). Nonetheless, movies are largely stable and predictable in production. Someone is going to take a camera somewhere and artfully point it at people playing make-believe. There will be video and sound editing afterward, along with a good dash of computer-generated imagery. Almost all mainstream movies will then be finalized and sent to theaters nationwide after an expensive marketing blitz. Rinse and repeat. Not surprisingly, this stable production system allows for decent writing (at least under ideal circumstances).

The production of video games is anything but a stable system. Publishers and developers regularly go bankrupt, often times killing a game’s development instantly. Operating consoles (with radically different hardware) come and go, constantly causing a shifting foundation for software minded developers. Mechanics and interface systems are always advancing at a rapid rate, with each step forward endangering the modernity of the last game released. Lastly, everyone has a radically different opinion on what makes a video game great. Is it graphics? Is it gameplay? Is it being innovative? All of the above? No one really knows, yet failing to appease the public’s opinion will result in disaster.

And then we get to the writing process. While movie scripts might be subject to multiple redrafts, rarely does a major revision have to occur because of someone not being able to point a camera in a certain fashion. All video games are powered by coded “engines,” which are always being tinkered with and have limitations. Sometimes a proposed scene might have to be scrapped simply because it cannot be rendered with stability. On top of all of this, video games are often dynamic and branching in their storytelling. A linear movie will tell the same story every time, even if there is no audience in the theater to watch it. In contrast, video games are always taking user input and reacting in volatile ways.

To summarize, even narrative-driven games are not actually driven by the narrative. Writing always plays second fiddle to technical design and user gameplay. Nonetheless, many a brave soul has ventured forth to innovate in the field of writing for video games, crafting scripts in a design process that would make a movie screenwriter faint in shock. Writing for video games is essentially the avant-garde for writing in general, constantly advancing over a pile of successes and failures in a never-ending quest for greatness. In my opinion, such successful literary ventures are worthy of great praise from all artists, even if they do not play video games. Quite frankly, this medium is the future of writing.

Over the next five weeks, I will talk about five distinct video game series that push the envelope in writing (to varying degrees of success). Each of these five companies is based out of a different nation and their stories do not all take place in the last 10 years. Some are deeply personal to the creators, while others are literally national. I’ll try to keep things focused and brief, but I do want to highlight the developmental drama that helped foster these landmark series in their creation. I hope you enjoy this multi-blog is analysis as much as I do! Next week, Part I: Final Fantasy, the Fabula Nova Crystallis development saga.

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The Force Multiplier

I’d like to take a moment to celebrate the rapidly approaching one year anniversary of this blog! I’m thankful God has blessed me with this opportunity and I appreciate the support of everyone who has read this enterprise. It’s been a real blast writing on a weekly basis. For those of you who might be wondering about my posting consistency, I typically have an entire queue of blog posts ready to go on a scheduled basis. This ensures that I never miss a Friday due to illness or other distractions. (The queue of ready posts expands or contracts, but is typically 4 to 5 finalized posts.) I try to write a blog at least once a week, but sometimes I catch fire and write two or three if I have the time.

Coming up with ideas, of course, is different from actually expounding upon them. Idea gesticulation can be a slow process, but when inspiration hits I typically immediately create a draft post with my initial ideas. I try to keep 30 or 40 of these floating about, tweaking them from a conceptual standpoint until I feel ready to actually write the post. Some of the ideas I discard, while others evolve dramatically as I further scrutinize the concept. From that point onward, I whimsically select a post that I favor and start writing for the queue. This is the most entertaining part, as sometimes I discover a work of fiction that serves as the “cherry on top” for whatever I’ve been pondering (which fires me up to write).

Perhaps the biggest hurdle is finding a balance between passion and consistency. If I only operated on passion, then I would write once a month about something I was deeply enthused about. Conversely, I could be consistent at all times in a boring output, but this blog would be a painful chore and not worth my time (or yours). Hopefully, I have found the right balance for all parties involved! I do want to mix things up, however. While I will continue to write about specific writing characteristics, I’m about to launch a five-part series about fiction writing in video game studios. For those of you that are interested in going into that field (or merely wanting a little real-life writing drama), this should be for you!

Ultimately, this blog is secretly my attempt to create a “writing bible” for my future fictional works that are currently underway. I want to discover all of the attributes that make a fictional story truly great, no matter the subject matter at hand. That’s where the name of the blog comes in: “force multiplier.” This is a military term that is largely used to denote weapons (or other abstract doctrines) that can lead to multiplying the power of a force in question. For instance, a fire team can be deadly by their lonesome but give them a heavy machine gun and their lethality increases exponentially. Every great writer uses several force multipliers in their works, leading to a dramatically better story.

To further celebrate this one year anniversary, I would like to highlight a few of my blog posts:

The Truth Will Enslave You – My original blog post that discusses mysteries and how to create them.

The Slow Death of Entropy – My favorite blog post! It’s about how to avoid a stagnant story.

Opium for the Masses – The toughest blog I have composed. It’s about religion in fiction.

A Few of My Favorite Things – Check this out if you’re curious about my personal opinions about the best stories in their respective mediums.

While I do have a lot of other subjects I want to tackle in this blog, feel free to let me know in the comments if you want a certain item or story to be examined. I’m still generating ideas and I’m always on the lookout for new material. Like any writer, I’m always interested in discovering additional fictional works that are somewhat out of the mainstream, yet are of the highest quality. (I don’t begrudge any popular fiction, but it always frustrates me how many people seem to be completely ignorant about anything that hasn’t been adapted somehow into a Hollywood blockbuster.)

Here’s to another year of Writing Force Multiplier! Thanks for reading!

When the Sky Falls

Cataclysm. Apocalypse. Disaster. Whatever you want to call it, fiction in recent history has been obsessed with stories revolving around near-world ending events. It is key to note, however, that the world isn’t actually destroyed (then you’d have no story). Instead, a new world is created from the old, either by the survivors or whatever force caused the event. Regardless, a duality is present that creates high drama while giving a writer free reign to have modernity dance with antiquity. Today am going perform a dissection of the disaster genre, which broadly encompasses subgenres like “post-apocalyptic” and “dystopian.” What makes a great story in this genre tick? Hint: it’s not zombies.

First and foremost, the story can’t really be about the calamity. Sure, maybe the plot and characters are heavily linked to whatever happened, but a force of nature itself can’t be the protagonist. Instead, it merely must be a stepping stone to further events down the road. Land of the Lustrous starts with a bizarre bang, featuring a world of living crystals with no humans in sight. Slowly but surely the horrific truth reveals itself, propelling the protagonist Phos on a deeply personal journey that is never obsessed strictly with the calamity. Instead, precious time is spent on character development.

The next important attribute is the sense of mystery and revelation. Does the viewer really want to immediately know what transpired in the cataclysm? Probably not, because the audience in question is not yet vested in the story. It is critically important for the writer to immerse everyone in the narrative before moving on to less important things like background. The Stormlight Chronicles by Brandon Sanderson presents multiple nations (filled full of interesting characters) living in a very alien world that is perpetually ravaged by horrible storms. Not until the second book does the world begin to understand its origins and why the calamity isn’t through yet. The mystery continues to build with a great cast of characters beside it.

Nevertheless, it is critical that the not so fortuitous event integrate itself into every facet of the story. If the writer suddenly decides to make the trampoline disappear after it launches the story, then the audience will come crashing down onto the hard earth beneath. The Broken Empire and Red Queen trilogies feature a not-so-modern world moving on with its life in spite of the “Day of a Thousand Suns,” but that day echoes throughout the story in an integrated way. Both protagonists Jorg and Jalen have their own set of problems, namely trying to keep the world from tearing itself apart as it did thousands of years prior. Nonetheless, the old world keeps on rearing its ugly head in problematic ways.

Lastly, the author should never feel obligated to explain every facet of the disaster. As I previously stated, the story is not really about the event. The Book of Eli explores the implications of an extended apocalypse, but never feels obligated to have a scientist discuss the technical implications of nuclear war on earth’s electromagnetic field. Instead, the audience is treated to a haunting tale of Denzel Washington’s titular character exploring a ravaged land looking for Biblical truth and hope. In that same vein, Adventure Time spends little time explaining “The Great Mushroom War” that removed a third of the Earth’s crust. The writers of the show wisely choose to focus on more interesting narratives that result from the war.

So why aren’t zombies a great solution to interesting drama? From what I’ve observed, filling an entire world and plot with undead is essentially adding artificial fleshy speed bumps everywhere with no end in sight. The aimless wandering of the countryside by the hero suddenly becomes mildly acceptable due to “killing drama.” Eventually, characters will have to become extremely stupid and unrealistic in a quest to continue co-mingling with the undead. Some stories have prevailed in spite of this, but they are few and far between. Gears of War successfully takes the zombie concept and turns it into a more compelling plot with intelligent monsters from the netherworld. It’s still scary, but far more fascinating and focused.

Regardless of which track a writer wants to pursue in writing for the disaster genre, they must always find balance in the world duality that creates the drama. Only then can pure entertainment emerge that won’t degrade into banality.

 

One Final Effort

For those of you that aren’t aware, nothing is really easy in life. Paying your taxes is hard. Having a child is hard. Heck, finding a good movie to watch in the theater is hard. Regardless of what you are trying to accomplish, difficulties are bound to arise along your long and winding path. So why do we persevere regardless? Because it’s worth it, especially when the struggle is great! It is often said that life is not about the destination, but the journey itself. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “He who has a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how.'” Stories are no different in this regard. The best fiction is always connected in some manner to the real-life and relatable perils of nonfiction.

Perhaps the protagonist is on a literal journey, or maybe they are seeking to build something (a relationship, an enterprise, etc.). Regardless of what it is, a writer’s job is to make sure that they don’t have an easy time doing it. While the primary reason is for the sake of drama, it’s critical to note that having things come easy destroys the viewership’s acceptance. It’s extremely difficult to suspend your disbelief if a character is miraculously good at everything they touch for the first time. Star Wars The Force Awakens struggles mightily with this, as its female protagonist Rey is easily excellent with a starship, a lightsaber, and electrical engineering the first go around. Where’s the fun in that?

That’s a problem with most movies, at least to some degree. It takes time to work toward a goal or achieve proficiency. Unfortunately, audiences don’t want to watch a six-hour movie in one sitting, so characters have to be fortuitous or plots must jump in time. It’s rare for a movie like Batman Begins to so artfully integrate a training arc into Bruce Wayne’s story, featuring the protagonist slowly becoming a superhero vigilante. Instead, most action movies might have a lazy montage that magically makes the aspiring hero a certified hero in two minutes. Thankfully, there are serialized movies (like the Lord of the Rings trilogy) that do have 9-12 hours to cover an epic trek.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have video games, which are all about progress. The ideal for this medium is for the player to experience victorious progression, which is often closely tied to the game’s story (assuming that there is one). Role-playing games (RPGs) in particular focus on this struggle for achievement, featuring protagonist avatars making decisions and marching toward grandiose objectives. The Dragon Age series does this particularly well, especially in the third game Inquisition. Over the course of 60 plus hours, your character fights to build an army and save the world from evil. Best of all, you get your own private castle and a war table to plan your conquest.

Perhaps my favorite story regarding a protagonist’s personal journey and struggle is the TV show A Place Further Than the Universe. This short series tells the story of four Japanese high school girls conspiring to make a trip to Antarctica. Early on the viewer learns that one of the teenagers lost her mother to a research expedition long ago. Naturally, the entire team wants to help her achieve some form of resolution to the horrible tragedy that mysteriously befell her mother. As you can imagine, getting to Antarctica safely and legally is no easy feat in and of itself, something that the show meticulously documents in entertaining ways every episode.

Every writer needs to strive for authenticity in development, whether that development is physically moving, forming an emotional relationship, or mentally surmounting an obstacle. Not surprisingly, a good deal of factual research will go a long way toward formulating the story. All along the way surprises must spring up, both fortuitous and alarming (or both). As always, drama must be generated for continued viewer engagement. It’s critical for a viewer to experience the ups and downs of a character’s perseverance, bemoaning their setbacks and cheering small victories. Ideally, at the end of the story, a surge of wondrous accomplishment that vindicates the grand struggle must make its appearance.

Necessary Evils

It is said that context is key. A single deliberate action can either be commendable or nefarious, depending entirely on the contextual situation. Shoving an old lady in front of a bus is malicious, but shoving the same old lady out of the bus’s path is selfless. Simple, right? Unfortunately, things are a lot more complicated in the communication of a fictional narrative. It is difficult for a writer to create a context for a viewer that has suddenly been “dropped” into a fictitious world with fictitious characters. Even if the story is based on real-world events, there is no guarantee that they are universally understood by the average viewer. Broadly speaking, this makes every story alien and in desperate need of context.

There is a solution though. A necessary evil that few like, but all desperately need: exposition. This is essentially the communication of dull details that serve to educate the viewership and ultimately add context to the story. Exposition in storytelling takes a variety of forms, oftentimes molded by the medium used. A movie might have a character who is always spouting details (Joseph Gordon Levitt in Inception), while a novel might even possess a glossary that a reader could flip back to. Video games are perhaps a hybrid of these methodologies, often times featuring monologues combined with all sorts of informative screens in the menu for the player’s education (often times referred to as a codex).

Of course, some stories opt for extreme doses of exposition, while others try to abstain almost entirely. The Revenant is a great example of the latter. Leonardo DiCaprio spends two-plus hours wandering through the frigid Western frontier, seeking both revenge and survival. Because the story is rather minimalist, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu does his best to avoid any “plot point” characters or dialogue that purely serves to educate the audience. Instead, he treats the viewers to his spectacular cinematography shot in Montana, Canada, and Argentina, letting the natural environment move the story forward. Judging by the critical reception, his efforts were wildly fruitful.

At the other end of the spectrum are movie series like The Garden of Sinners, which features fantastical powers and sorcery in a modern urban world that is largely oblivious to such things. These movies ensure that their exposition is a necessity and not a luxury shrugged off by the absent-minded. Most of the stories in the movies are mysteries with severe doses of psychological and carnal horror, often times presented out of sequence to increase drama. As such, the viewership is always desperately seeking answers and resolution, ensuring that they are always ready for another torrent of much-needed exposition. Naturally, it helps that the world building craftsmanship is top-tier.

Continuing my emphasis on audiences’ tastes, I would like to now point out that exposition is often times viewed very differently by subgroups in the viewership. Nerds love all lore and general information in the story, as long as it is not painfully presented in a ham-fisted way. Conversely, more casual partakers of fiction don’t like to be bombarded with a lot of silly stuff that doesn’t apply to their real daily lives. Perhaps the average viewer lands in between, who typically like to know more about their favorite character’s background but doesn’t care to figure out if the Gregorian or Julian calendar is being used in the story. Such is the diversity of every fan base.

In a way, exposition is as only valuable as the components that require it: world building, dynamic characters, and the plot that conjoins the two. Low-quality inputs will cause low-quality exposition and vice versa. Beyond this, however, exposition in some form is always required to keep contextualizing events and retain the audience in the information loop. A writer should never assume that their audience will always naturally understand everything presented to them, especially if it is placed in a less than forthright manner. Exposition is always a lesser evil when contrasted with confusion. Likewise, sleight-of-hand writing can be ingenious, but will always fail without exposition.

How do you feel about exposition? Do stories typically have too much of it, or too little? Let me know in the comments!

An Outdated History Book

The funny thing about history is that all of the past events in it were anything but solid at the time of their transpiration. Things in the past that seemed inevitable in retrospective were seen at that time as unforeseeable and shocking. Why? Events are constantly subject to the slightest input changes that can have colossal outputs. Such notions are widely known as deterministic chaos (i.e. chaos theory or the “butterfly effect”). That concept is understandably difficult, but the poem For Want of a Nail does an excellent job of translating the theory into literary form:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Naturally, such historical volatility provides fertile ground for a writer. What if a country didn’t win a war, or a culture didn’t survive a devastating event? Such scenarios create branching timelines that can deviate from the modern era dramatically, especially the further back you go in time. (While such storytelling can be interlinked to time travel meddling, I’m not focusing on that kind of warping.) Perhaps only minor things changed, leaving a world roughly the same but with some notable deficiencies. A great example of this would be My Hero Academia, which explains how a world of developing 20th-century superheroes could lead to a lack of extraterrestrial space development.

Perhaps my favorite alternate history story is in the movie Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade. Imperial Japan is defeated in World War II with atomic weapons, but not by the United States. Instead, a victorious Nazi Germany does the conquering, spreading its specific style of authoritarianism to the Far East. Nonetheless, Japan becomes a somewhat autonomous state but with heavy internal conflict. The Japanese protagonist Fuse is part of a paramilitary anti-terror unit operating in dense strife-ridden urban areas, fighting against radical terrorists known as the Sect. A series of events leads the damaged protagonist into a dark web of treachery that threatens to destroy him and his Nazi-inspired unit.

Technology, in particular, is such a fickle thing. While modern society is used to Moore’s Law (at least in regard to their annual iPhone purchases), history has not always been kind to technological progression. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the knowledge of cement concrete was basically lost for a millennium. What if humanity had somehow forgotten to utilize electricity in the 20th century? Conversely, it’s amazing to think about the implications of additional scientific research being applied to the first steam engine developed in first century Roman Egypt. Would late Roman emperors have traveled by train and steamboat?

The movie Steamboy (directed by famed Katsuhiro Otomo) explores the implications of rapid technological advancement in the 19th century. Set in the 1860s, this animated visual marvel depicts a steampunk Victorian England almost completely overwhelmed by extreme industrial advancement that ultimately threatens to be its undoing. The protagonist, Ray, is a teenage genius on par with his father and grandfather, both who are at odds with each other over the future of science. All manner of “futuristic” machines and weaponry are present in the film, many of which look suited for a World War I battlefield. Ironically, the end of the film indicates that the Great War happens much sooner than 1914 due to this.

So how does a writer go about creating a superb alternate reality? Primarily, they must think through the impactful implications of any historical alterations, especially considering the changes to the daily lives of the characters in the story. Accelerated technological advancement has a tendency to also accelerate cultural change and ensuing events, while altered victors in wars can radically set back any society (at least economically). Protagonist Stacy isn’t going to have a “normal” life if the British reclaim America in 1812 and start deploying steam-powered soldiers to oversee vengeful tyranny. As always, the fundamental basics must never be forgotten in a quest for an original twist.

Do you have a favorite alternate history story? Let me know in the comments!

Here There Be Dragons

The setting is of paramount importance to any story. It is the backdrop for everything that transpires with characters and plot. But what is a setting exactly? Broadly speaking, I am talking about a locale. What is the world and where is everyone in it? This can be literally a single set centered around a very small area (like in the movie Phone Booth) or span so many areas that you need a world map (see Lord of the Rings). Regardless of where the story ends up on the spectrum, it needs to be literally grounded in a comprehensible location that is anything but haphazard. The old joke in real estate is that the three most important things are location, location, and–you guessed it–location!

Does this sound like overkill? How many writers actually go into a story thinking “I just want a really cool map!” Likewise, does an audience gleefully anticipate exposition about fantastical mountain ranges or ancient districts in Rome? To be honest, not many. Nonetheless, a story without established locations is like a ship without an anchor or compass. From a viewership perspective, mass confusion can result if they literally can’t understand “what” is transpiring because they don’t know the “where.” The Owen Wilson movie Behind Enemy Lines takes on a whole different meaning if the audience mistakenly thinks that the downed American pilot is in France instead of Bosnia. Why can’t he just grab a Parisian taxi?

Regardless of whether the setting is in a very real location or in a hobbit-filled world, every creator needs to have at least some sort of makeshift map created for literal plotting. Characters don’t just teleport from scene to scene (unless it is a Star Trek show). In my opinion, every writer should share some version of this map with the viewership, especially if a whole manner of locations are involved. The Game of Thrones novels contain entire lists of characters for easy reference, but many of their national affiliations would mean little if there was not a detailed map accompanying it. The TV show version goes one step further, featuring a dynamic opening that highlights geographic locations in the ensuing episode.

Perhaps the best use of a map ever is in the TV show Made in Abyss, which features a highly detailed vertical map. The two lead protagonists are on a mysterious journey that takes them from a coastal city into the mouth of a super deep chasm that has been roughly mapped out by preceding explorers. This abyss serves as the main location for most of the story and is greatly narrated on by all characters involved, often times with a map present. While some stories featuring travelogues can leave the viewership confused, this story is very clear in its physical direction: down. The icing on the cake is that the map is not fully complete, hinting at unstated mysteries at the end of the journey.

made-in-abyss

Specific locations should have even more thought put into them. All manner of contextual education, eye candy, and sustained metaphors can be put into a venue. There’s a reason why so many stories have a scene in graveyards or other venues that speak volumes in their existence alone. While a writer can have Chad and Stacy experience a break-up in front of a dull concrete wall in the middle of nowhere, there are better locations. What if instead, the discourse transpired in Stacy’s bedroom where she started to destroy various memorabilia related to Chad? The story can show Chad reacting to the location’s abrupt and destructive transformation, creating a truly memorable scene.

Exposition, in particular, can truly be smoothly and silently narrated in a dynamic background. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the titular hero is shown early on by Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury an underground dry dock beneath the Potomac River. Inside the drydock, three flying aircraft carriers are being constructed. The scene is far more impactful than if Fury just handed Captain America a paper memorandum stating his goals for the project. On that same note, the audience is exposed to large amounts of visual information that will come into play later in the story. When the carriers emerge by the end of the movie no one will be confused as to why stuff is flying out of Washington DC’s river.

All in all, every writer needs to spend a lot of time hashing out the minutia of geography and the locations that exist within. No one should settle for a lazy world building that can potentially undermine the entire narrative and cheapen the experience. Trust me, your audience will thank you for all of your hard work charting the perilous unknown!